Institutions targeted in Israeli incursions

Army destroying infrastructure of Palestinian Authority

April 07, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - The Palestinian police force has been disarmed. Palestinian children in the West Bank haven't attended school for more than a week. Government buildings have been shelled or ransacked. Water from burst pipes is flooding city streets.

Institution by institution, Israel's military re-occupation of the West Bank has destroyed the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority, the quasi-government that oversaw most cities and villages and was intended to become the foundation for an independent Palestinian state.

When the armed clashes eventually end and thousands of troops begin to withdraw, perhaps as early as this week, the Israeli army will leave behind a wasteland of debris and bitter feelings, and the wreckage of a government that might be unable to operate or rebuild itself.

"I don't think we have the capability to issue a permit to build a house," said Saeb Erekat, a longtime adviser to Yasser Arafat. "I don't know if we can function. This has set us back 10 years. The army has dismantled everything we tried to build and ended all of our dreams."

Israel's army had swept through Palestinian cities and villages more than once in the past year but never before with the intensity displayed during "Operation Defensive Shield," which began March 29. It introduced new rules.

Israel labeled Arafat an enemy of the state. In Israel's view, that made the offices of the Palestinian Authority - from the Finance Ministry to the Ministry of Education - legitimate targets of war.

Attention has focused largely on Arafat himself, besieged in the wreckage of his presidential compound in Ramallah.

Israeli troops and Palestinian security forces had a brief but intense exchange of fire last night at compound. Nabil Aburdeneh, an Arafat spokesman in the compound, said Israeli troops made moves to enter Arafat's office, prompting the Palestinian guards in an adjacent building to open fire. The Israelis shot back at the security guards, wounding four, one of them seriously, he said. No one in Arafat's office was hurt, he added.

The Israeli army said it came under fire from the building next to Arafat's office and returned fire with weapons that included an anti-tank missile.

But much more has been damaged or destroyed. Troops targeted, for example, the three-story building housing the Ministry of Education, a structure that private American donors erected in 1952 as a women's college.

Naim Abu Homos, deputy minister of education, visited the ministry Friday, thanks to an escort from a television crew in an armored car. After his tour, he expressed doubts that West Bank schools will be able to reopen immediately after the soldiers leave.

"They took all of our new computers and took the hard drives from the rest," Homos said. "To open doors, it appears that they used explosives. To see a room where they used a bomb, it looks like a demolished house."

He said files were taken and copy machines ripped apart. Books from broken shelves littered the floors. Tanks that came to the entranceway flattened a courtyard garden planted by elementary school children.

"I hear all the time from children as young as 5, `Why do the Israelis hate us so much?'" Homos said in a telephone interview. "I can't explain it. This is not how you build peace for the future. Children are talking about killing. I have no idea what is going to come out of all this."

Israeli officials defend the conduct of their soldiers, saying their aim was to dismantle a government infrastructure supporting terrorism. Every government building, they said, was subject to thorough search.

Soldiers seized truckloads of documents that security experts are studying, searching for links between Arafat's top aides and militant groups responsible for killing hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks.

Soldiers also found scores of weapons of types that were prohibited by the accords that established the Palestinian Authority.

Most of the weapons, however, were found in the security headquarters and Arafat's presidential compound. The army has not reported any finds from other government buildings, including the education and finance ministries.

Hillel Frisch, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said the reported frailty of the Palestinian Authority was greatly exaggerated. It continues to receive millions of dollars a year in aid from Arab countries and Europe.

Palestinian officials said the Israeli army has unintentionally strengthened Arafat and, through him, virtually guaranteed that the Palestinian Authority will survive.

Bickering over corruption and inefficiency, a hallmark of the Palestinian Authority, has stopped, as has talk of rivalry between factions. Palestinian legislators say the government will survive even if it can no longer effectively govern.

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